Murre colonies struggle to reproduce following die-off

Common Murre ( Uria aalge), also known as Common Guillemot. Photographed at Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska. (Creative Commons photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

The massive murre die-off that left tens of thousands of dead birds on Alaska’s coast in 2015 and 2016 may be over, but the population is still struggling. In the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, surviving murres are failing to reproduce.

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“When we got to most of the breeding colonies last summer we found that very few birds were attending the cliffs and almost complete reproductive failure at most of the colonies we looked at,” Heather Renner said. She’s a biologist for the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge.

That means in some places less than one percent of the chicks survived.

While reproductive failure is common for some species like black-legged kittiwakes, it isn’t for murres.

With 30 plus years of monitoring data, Renner said they’ve never seen anything like this. Still, she said one year of reproductive failure doesn’t necessarily mean the species is doing poorly.

It’s important to study murres because they’re a sign of ecosystem health. Renner calls them sentinels of change.

“They tell us something about what’s happening underwater,” Renner said. “So seabirds are great indicators to us of things that are taking place in other parts of the ocean.”

Renner said it’s too early to tell if the reproductive failure will continue into this summer’s breeding season.